The lucky folks who saw Merle Haggard’s performance at Red Butte Garden on Tuesday night got to experience what it’s like to be in the presence of a true country legend—at least for one evening. Sure, Haggard is pushing 80, but he still has grit, guts and raw talent in spades, all funneled into a rich voice and accomplished guitar-picking and fiddling skills.
Without any preamble, he strode onstage looking dapper in a suit, cowboy hat and sunglasses (after dark, because he’s “The Hag”) and struck up a rendition of “Big City,” accompanied by a full band of fiddle, lap steel, drums, guitar, piano and backup singers. But, it wasn’t until after a couple of more songs—“Twinkle Twinkle, Lucky Star” and “Silver Wings”—that he introduced himself and thanked the audience for being there. In fact, he was a man of few words throughout the entire show, preferring to make with the music and play through one song after another, rapid-fire style.
When cracks appeared in his gruff exterior and he did interact with the audience, it was in hilariously offbeat ways, and usually worked into a song. During one interlude, after the stars had started to come out, he sang-spoke to the audience, “Well, good evening, don’t that sun feel good goin’ down?” While playing set highlight “Are the Good Times Really Over?”—which he started twice because he wasn’t satisfied with the level of audience participation the first time—he suddenly yelled, “Remember when you could steal wood?!” It was random and funny, and my concert companion and I kept saying it to each other the rest of the night.
I think it would be safe to bet that the crowd—who all wore cowboy hats, by the way—that showed up that night was one of the rowdiest Red Butte has ever seen. People were on their feet, dancing in the aisles, singing along and crowding together at the front of the stage, especially during “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here & Drink” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” But, they knew to settle down and behave when Haggard played an emotional, heartache-y “My Favorite Memory,” which inspired a lot of couples to get up and sweetly slow dance together.
Toward the end of his set, Haggard played “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and “Fightin’ Side of Me”—dedicated to America’s armed forces—and even busted out some excellent fiddle on “Get Along Home Cindy.” But, the best moment of the concert by far was when he concluded the night with his famous “Okie From Muskogee.” Right before the song, Haggard said, “We don’t play this every night, but we’re gonna play this especially for you,” and the audience responded with happy yells, then loudly sang along to great lyrics like, “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, a place where even squares can have a ball.”
It was an incredible set of songs that are showing no signs of wear. Perfectly timeless, like Haggard himself, they make the listener long for a simpler time, one where—like in the lyrics from “Are the Good Times Really Over?”—“Coke was still cola, and a joint was a bad place to be.”
All pictures by Dom Darling